Friday, January 6, 2017

Clan of the Cave Bear

So, getting back to my little project of reading as many good books as I possibly can, I recently read Clan of the Cave Bear.

Clan of the Cave Bear is the first book in a series called Earth's Children by Jean M. Auel.  I will start out by saying that the series becomes increasingly difficult to slog through.  I've been stranded in the middle of the third book for weeks.  They have a huge number of scenes that are so awkward and uncomfortable I find myself skipping almost full chapters.  I'd prefer the books spent more time on the anthropology they're drawn from and less time on romance and mating rituals.  There are people and places with names so ridiculous I won't even attempt to spell them.  The main male character is sometimes very irritating.  I will attempt to finish the series in its entirety, as I've heard nothing but good things.  I have the next two books at ready in case I finish the third one soon.

All of that said, I can remember hearing the title of the first book as long as I can remember, and there's a reason for that.  Clan of the Cave Bear is among the best books I've ever read.  I would never have imagined a story about Neanderthals could be so poignant and entertaining.  I was genuinely touched by Auel's imaginative storytelling and beautifully constructed characters.

The story follows a young Cro Magnum girl named Ayla who is adopted by a family of Neanderthal people.  Together, they have to find a new cave and survive a harsh environment.  Ayla's life is further complicated by the Neanderthal clan's ridged societal norms and customs.  There are many impulses Ayla has to deny in order to fit in with her adoptive family.  Ayla must carve out a role for herself in order to survive, with many obstacles along the way.

The most enjoyable part of this story for me are Ayla's Neanderthal family members.  They're complex, developed characters, some of whom are based in part on real skeletal finds.  My attachment to these flawed but lifelike characters really drove my interest through the first book.  It really helps my enjoyment of the book knowing the results of recent genetic testing that find Neanderthal genes in many modern humans.

There's a lot of science and scientific speculation in this book.  I'm sure many academics have tried to pick it apart and show which parts of it are likely accurate and which parts are completely made up.  Auel did a lot of research, but the book is definitely more art that science.  The line between the real and the imagined is blurred in a unique, distinctive way.  There are parts of it I would argue are science fiction, and there are parts that are unadulterated fantasy, and that's absolutely intriguing.  It makes me want to read more like it, though I wouldn't know where to begin to look for something like this.  So far the second and third books really lack some of the unexplainable magic of the first one, but I'm hopeful for a return to that.

While it did occur to me that Ayla has an unrealistic ability to excel at almost everything she tries, Ayla is an impressive character.  Even though the second book was mostly her alone in the wilderness, she was still much more compelling by herself than the other main character was interacting with a huge number of other characters.  She has a tendency to invent all the tools our ancestors needed to survive almost entirely by herself, but I still find her vulnerable enough that I care what happens to her.  I would describe the character as a feminist icon, a woman who does all the things she's not suppose to do.

A movie adaptation of this exists, but I can't imagine it could do the book any kind of justice at all.  Most of the dialog is spoken in sign language in the book, which would make it very difficult for most hearing people to follow if they did a faithful adaptation.  An adaptation with a lot of spoken words would take out most of the drama of the early chapters of the story.

I would give the first book all of the stars.  It's extremely enjoyable.